It has been several years since I locked the door to my fifth grade classroom. But within those walls, memories still linger on chalkboards, bookshelves, bulletin boards, and in the desks of the students who inhabited that sacred space.

On the bulletin board closest to that door, imprints of math, spelling, and Language Arts papers remain. I called that bulletin board, the “Someone Special” board. I made sure each and every student had the opportunity to have their work displayed there, for I felt every student was special in his or her own way. These students are adults now and have gone on with their lives, as I have gone on with mine.

But every now and then, I have the privilege of running into one of my former students. Sometimes I have to look closely to recognize them. They are not 10 years old anymore.

Stopping by the district office for a meeting one afternoon, I approached a young woman sitting behind the desk. I glanced at her nameplate and recognized the name immediately. Carol. Yes, of course.

“Do you remember me, Mrs. De Maci?” she asked.

“Denim blue is the color of my favorite jeans,” I replied, reciting a line from one of the color poems she had written in class.

“How did you remember that?” she exclaimed, quite surprised.

“Just lucky, I guess,” responding with a-teacher-remembers-all grin.

For some reason, after all these years, I can still remember some of the poems that many of my students wrote. I treasure them.

I could also recall Carol sitting in the front row of the classroom, in a seat nearest the window, her pencil moving across the page in syncopated rhythm with the other students in class. This was always a special time for me, observing the beauty of young scholars at work and wondering where their lives would take them.

I ran into Margaret one morning, standing next to her in line at the pharmacy. She loved to write. She was now a junior in college, having exchanged her navy blue-and-white school uniform for a colorful skirt and sweater.

“Are you still writing?” I asked her.

“No,” she countered. “I think term papers have taken a lot of that out of me.”

“Promise me you’ll find a few minutes here and there to write a poem or short story just for fun,” I urged, cheering her on. Margaret had such a flair with words. A true gift.

Waiting in the exam room for the doctor, I was greeted by a young woman in a white nurse’s uniform. There was something familiar about her: the way she moved and talked and … smiled.

“It’s me, Mrs. De Maci. Sara.”

“Sara?” I echoed. “How are you? I see you’re doing well,” I said, smiling back.

I don’t ever remember her mentioning that she would one day like to become a nurse. But here she was, clearly at home in her chosen profession. I introduced her to my doctor when he entered the room.

“This is Sara. She’s special,” I said. “Someone special.”

I thought about Sara all the way home. I was so happy that she was happy.

At Mass one Sunday morning, I was sitting in the second pew behind a broad-shouldered Marine in uniform. His presence was palpable. I felt a surge of pride wash over me.

There’s a part of the Catholic Mass where we stand and offer one another a sign of peace — usually a handshake or a hug.

This beautiful young man in front of me turned around and offered me his hand.

“Do you remember me, Mrs. De Maci?” he asked, his face solemn with life.

“Tell me your name,” I whispered, holding his hand in mine.

“Joseph.”

My eyes filled with tears, my heart full of admiration and awe for this brave young man who stood before me in the uniform of our country. He had come home early from his tour of duty because he had fallen ill. I hugged him tightly, seeing him sitting in his blue-and-white school uniform in the third row right behind Jennifer.

“I’m so proud of you, Joseph,” I said, not wanting to let go of his hand. And for a moment we were both back in Grade 5 where life seemed simpler, and peace could be defined in a classroom.

I have never forgotten that special day. And I have never forgotten him. He has seeded himself somewhere down deep in my soul, touching that place in my heart reserved “For Teachers Only.”

I have come to realize that once-upon-a-time I was taking care of them — these students who sat before me every day with questioning faces. I had graham crackers in my desk drawer in case they didn’t have time for breakfast that morning. I made sure they put on their sweaters at recess time because it was chilly outside. I walked them across the playground to the campus library, assuring them that reading was a way to freedom and a better life.

And at the end of the day, I said good-bye to them. “See you in the morning. Take care of yourself.”

And now these young men and women were taking care of me. Helping me fill out forms so I could continue on my road to retirement. Taking my blood pressure and temperature so that I could remain well. Fighting for my freedom in a faraway land so that I could live in a country that has given all of us so much.

I would have liked to have said to Joseph, Carol, Margaret, and Sara — as well as to each and every one of my students over the years — thank you. Thank you for coming into my life and teaching me how to love … and thank you for giving me hope for a better world. It has been an honor and a privilege meeting you.

You were all “Someone Special.”

(Lola Di Giulio De Maci is a Fontana resident.)

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